But as more and more relatives come to stay, things spiral out of control. Tying the knot has Kevin tied up in knots in this laugh-out-loud story.
“When it comes to telling funny stories about boys, no one surpasses Paulsen.”—Booklist
“[Paulsen is] one of the best-loved writers alive.”—The New York Times
Praise for Family Ties
“Kevin seems to truly have his heart in the right place as he tries to bring order to the disparate parts [of his family] and restore some missing familial affection.”—Kirkus Reviews
“The Spencers may not be a conventionally perfect family, but by the end of the novel it is clear that, despite their oddball antics, they are a loving one. Fans of the series and new readers will enjoy this offering.”—School Library Journal
“[A] goofy, rollicking ride.”—The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books
About the Author
Gary Paulsen is also available for select readings and lectures. To inquire about a possible appearance, please contact the Random House Speakers Bureau at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read an Excerpt
The Normal Family Encourages Each Member to Make Big Plans for the Future
I’m the happiest guy alive. Because Katrina M. Zabinski is my girlfriend.
I’m also the most miserable guy who ever lived, because the pressure of having a girlfriend like Tina is crushing.
See, Tina’s not just any girl; she’s the universe’s most astonishing specimen of female sublimity. She has hair that sparkles and skin that glows and blue-green eyes that twinkle. Glinda the Good Witch and her bubble look dull compared to Tina.
One thing I’ve noticed about the whole boyfriend-and-girlfriend thing is that there is a lot of breaking up.
But not me and Tina. No way.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see which one of us got the better deal here, and it wasn’t her. When you’re lucky enough to have found and then caught a girl like Tina, you worry. How do you make sure you’re not going to lose her? Ever?
So far, Tina and I have had two dates, and they were both accidental. The first was when we ran into each other at a neighbor’s party, and the second happened when she came by my house after I ran for class president. She helped me make good on some of my brilliant ideas.
Dates like that weren’t going to show her that I’m a happily-ever-after, forever-and-ever kind of guy. Not just a middle school boyfriend, but a family man.
Go big or go home, I always say.
Other guys might be content with knowing their girlfriend is a lock until the next big party or school dance. Not me.
So I had to plan the Perfect Official First Date and figure out how to show Tina that she’d already met her lifelong significant other: Kevin Lucas Spencer.
I got my first clue on how to start before first period Friday, when I noticed she was upset. Her forehead was scrunched and she was having an intense whispered conversation with her best friend, Connie.
“And then I told him he was a terrible brother and that I was going to tell Mom what he called me!” The anguish in Tina’s voice ripped at my heart.
Connie said something, but I didn’t listen; I was waiting for it to be Tina’s turn to talk again.
“You think?” Tina looked doubtful, which, on her, is adorable. “I mean, it would be nice if he said sorry first, but maybe trying to make things better is the right thing to do. My folks say we should be there for each other, no matter what.”
The ideal girlsmoking hot and a great sister.
The bell rang, so I sat back to figure out how to use this information to my advantage.
Clearly, Tina values family. So do I. I figured if I could show her how much we had in common in that area, she’d have to see how indisputably Made for Each Other we were.
I knew I might have to fake my part a little bit. My family argues with each other all the time and no one ever rushes to apologize.
I was so caught up in thinking about getting Tina to see me as her future husband without freaking her outwe’re only fourteen, and not everyone is willing to make a lifetime commitment at our age like I amthat I hardly heard a word of class. I looked like I was taking notes, but I was really making a word search puzzle around Tina’s and my names and words like truelove and neverbreakingup and Deacon, which is what I hope she’ll agree to name our first dog.
As always, I died a little inside when Tina said goodbye at the end of class. I’d counted the minutes until our schedules would cross again (141). Facing that long a separation bummed me out, but I took a deep breath and headed to social studies, which I like.
Mr. Crosby started talking the second the bell rang.
“After the, uh, unexpected developments during the recent student body president campaign, it’s clear that we should revisit the workings of the American political process.
“We are a nation claiming to believe in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all.” Crosby was trying to make eye contact with everyone. He acts like a spot check from the superintendent might happen at any time and he wants his classes to be caught in the middle of a learning miracle.
“And yet it is sometimes difficult to remain aware of our responsibility to listen to and learn from those who don’t share our exact ideology.”
That’s what he said, but what I wrote in my notes was People don’t pay attention to people they disagree with. Summarizing is one of my academic strengths.
“When we perceive our fellow citizens as strangers rather than allies, we lose all sense of community and shared vision. We have a responsibility that we must exercise on behalf of our national, if not our global, human family.”
Family. I leaned back and smiled.
“A family is, of course, a miniature replica of society itself. So that’s why, next week”Crosby rubbed his hands together like he couldn’t wait for Monday to arrive“we’re going to break up into family units in class and work on problem solving vis-a-vis close familial relationships and situations. This will help you to become more politically sensitive.”
Crosby had us read a chapter in our textbooks about, I don’t know, support and compromise, for the remainder of the period. I skimmed the section and spent the rest of my time pondering: Should I take guitar lessons or a painting class? Which one would Tina want to do with me? Thinking about what’s best for our relationship takes a lot of work, let me tell you.
At lunch, I sailed into the cafeteria ready for a sloppy joe and a pudding cup, starving from all the thinking and planning and lovelorn stuff.
I stopped. I smelled Tina.
She has . . . an aura that surrounds her. I think it’s shampoo combined with her inner goodness. As soon as I catch my first whiff, my nose turns in its direction. My feet don’t always get the message and, as usual, I walked into the doorframe before I could stop myself. I bounced off, and as soon as my vision cleared I found myself facing Tina, who was talking to Katie Knowles and Milania Zeman. Katie was our student body president, and Milania was our Top Girl Jock.
“I’ve been looking for you two all morning,” Tina said to them, but smiled at me, pretending, as usual, that she hadn’t seen me make an idiot of myself. That smile makes me wish I could slay a dragon or lift an FV623 Stalwart amphibious 6×6 five-ton artillery supply vehicle with my bare hands. Or even just walk without tripping.
Tina handed Katie a sheet of paper. “I wanted to give you my application for the Fine Arts Fair. I’m so excited for the opportunity to exhibit my sketches.”
The ringing in my ears from my collision with the door turned into the sound of opportunity knocking.
“Count me in.” My voice cracked, turning those three syllables into about twelve, but I didn’t even care, because Tina smiled at me again before she floated off. Well, she got in line to buy her lunch, but she did it in such a light and graceful and smooth way that I wondered if she was part pixie. I looked down to see if she’d left a trail of glitter.
The part of me that reacts to Tina before the rest of me realizes what’s going on turned to Katie and Milania, hoping they’d explain what I’d just signed up for. Not that I cared. I’d have volunteered for an allergy study where I was stuck with needles and observed for life-threatening reactions if it meant participating in an activity with Tina.
“The Fine Arts Fair is a joint task force between the student government and the athletics department,” Katie told me.
No, I corrected her silently, it’s just another way for Kevin to score additional points with the girl of his dreams.
Too bad it meant involvement with the two most intimidating girls I know. Life is never completely perfect.
Even though Katie and I have what could be called a complicated history, I’d recently seen glimmers that, if I could stop messing up and Katie could tone down the profoundly grating aspects of her personality, she and I just might make a good team. We were finally on the same page and trying to get along.
But I knew better than to push my luck with too many conversations, because I have this crazy tendency to take advantage of her if we hang around together.
Milania and I had crossed paths when, umwhat do they say in the gangster movies?when we cut a mutually advantageous deal after she made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. She’s not the kind of person you want on your bad side, so I was glad everything worked out, more or less, and we were friendly, more or less. Again, it was better not to push my luck by spending too much time with her.
If you ask me, avoidance is an overlooked and underappreciated tactic for keeping a friendship in good shape.
“It’ll be an amazing accomplishment to list on our college applications in a few years,” Katie told me. “You can never start too soon if you want to protect your future.”
Exactly what I’d been thinking all morning. I was glad to know I wasn’t the only one in this school with an eye on the big picture. Leave it to Katie to be thinking along the same lines as me.
“Uh-huh,” I murmured, watching Tina pick out a milk carton. “When is it?”
“A week from tomorrow.” Milania handed me an application, but when I looked at the sheet of paper, what I saw was Another Way for Kevin to Show Tina Theirs Is a Romance for the Ages. “What are you thinking of displaying? Painting, sculpture, photography, jewelry?”
“Yes,” I answered absently. “That sounds great. Definitely.” Tina was walking to her lunch table, so I couldn’t really concentrate on what Milania was saying.
Sometimes it’s so good to be me that I feel bad for everyone else.
The Normal Family Has an Open-Door Policy for All Members
Sunday nights are the best time of my whole week. That’s when everybody goes to their rooms and shuts the doors because this is “drop everything and read” time at the Spencers’. We leave each other alone with our books and, in my case, a bowl of melted chocolate chips and a few bananas for dunking. It’s the perfect way to prepare for the week ahead.
I’d had a busy weekend; I play lacrosse on Saturday mornings and then I have two jobs, and I’d spent Sunday obsessing about my plan to make Tina aware of my potential so that she’d never suffer the agony of looking back at me as the One That Got Away. Being as thoughtful as I am is surprisingly exhausting.
I’d just settled on my bed, cracked the spine of my book and started to peel the first banana when the doorbell rang. As always when someone showed up at the door, or my cell chirped, or my computer dinged with a message, I hoped it was Tina.
“Hey!” I heard my uncle, Will, bellow. “Sorry about knocking your mailbox off the side of the house when I reached to ring the bell. Didn’t see it. Also didn’t see the flowerpot I tripped on. Smashed. Man, it’s like an obstacle course to get to your front door. You should do something about that.”
The last time Dad’s younger brother had visited us, he’d driven his car through the garage door, gotten arrested in our front yard for civil disobedience and left behind a swarming, wiggling mass of maggots under the kitchen sink after he missed the trash can with a half-eaten tuna-fish sandwich.
The garage door still doesn’t work, Mom and Dad are worried that the neighbors blame them for giving the neighborhood a bad reputation, and none of us have been able to eat rice since Uncle Will leftI bet that’s true of anyone who’s ever been surprised by a colony of maggots.
Uncle Will was not guaranteed a warm welcome.
But Tina deserves a boyfriend who goes out of his way to make things right between relatives, and fixing the Dad-not-speaking-to-Will situation seemed like a no-brainer. I had to prove to Tina that I, too, disliked familial discord and, just like her, was a force for good in sibling disagreements. But I never in a million years imagined that my harmless email to Uncle Will first thing this morning encouraging him to get in touch with Dad would lead to him showing up at our house.
All I’d done was tell Will that bygones should be bygones between family members. I’d just wanted to get Dad and Will talking.
Email is so ripe for misunderstanding.
And I should have remembered Uncle Will likes big gestures and surprises.
Too late now.
So I tiptoed across the room and pressed my ear against the door to hear better.
Then I dashed back to my bed to grab my snack, returned to the door and swirled the banana in the chocolate because it had started to congeal. Bananas are the perfect eavesdropping foodvery quiet inside your head, unlike tortilla chips or carrot sticks.
“Michael!” Uncle Will’s voice boomed. “Got a hug for your favorite brother?”
I guessed the answer was no. Correct that: No. Not. Ever.
After Will’s last visit, Dad believes Will is somehow responsible for everything that bugs him, such as the Cubs’ inability to get to the postseason and the sluggish Wi-Fi reception in the basement.
I cracked open my door and snuck a glance down the hall. Daniel and Sarah were peering out from their rooms too. Sarah claims she still has nightmares about watching Will get handcuffed and taken away in a patrol car as her boyfriend, Doug, dropped her off after a date. Daniel blames Will for the fact that we spray so much disinfectant that his eyes water every time he enters the kitchen. And since the automatic garage door opener hasn’t been repaired, I’m the one who has to open and close the door. Like in the olden days before electricity.
Sarah caught our eyes and gestured to us like the soldier in a war movie leading his platoon behind enemy lines. She inched down the hall to a vantage point where she could see the entryway. Daniel and I silently crawled after her.
We peeked around the corner and saw an awkward huddle in the entry. Mom and Dad wouldn’t usually keep visitors standing at the door, but they were clearly hoping that Will just wanted to say a quick hi on the front step and then leave.